Dr Vincent McKee: Only the support of bishops would be enough to spark an uprising

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The Independent Online

"Lost the battle, but still prosecuting the war" is how one disgruntled opposition senator summarised the position after yesterday's failed coup attempt. On reflection, this comment is more than mere wishful thinking.

The surrender of Antonio Trillanes and his associates after a brief shoot-out with police and soldiers brought the curtain down on the fifth such effort in barely seven years. Subsequent detentions and curfews, not to mention public support from the US State Department, all lent an air of apparent futility to the uprising. Yet far being a wild swing, yesterday's events offer ominous portents of a nation seriously fragmented and with an unhealthy potential to implode.

At the centre of this crisis stands President Gloria Arroyo, a wily and manipulative figure whose accession in 2001 and narrow election victory in 2004 provoked charges of ballot rigging. To date, the murders of 845 trade unionists, peasant leaders, journalists, church workers and radicals has been attributed by UN human rights investigators to hit-squads operating under military license.

Yesterday's coup effort is significant for the standing of its leading sponsors. Senator Trillanes's companions included former Vice-President Teofista Guingona, Brigadier-General Danilo Lim and, most interestingly, two Catholic bishops, Antonio Tobias and Julio Xavier Labayen, and a Catholic priest, Father Robert Rayes. This is the first time that bishops have actually taken their place on rebel firing lines.

Despite Arroyo's unpopularity in Manila, there seems little prospect of her falling before her term expires in 2010. Trillanes, while remaining a focus for opposition, has the most disputatious claims to lead a divided Philippines opposition, which has little unity of purpose, and backing from Washington, London and Tokyo has bolstered Arroyo among the economic class.

In the world's third largest Catholic nation, only concerted opposition by the country's 132 Catholic bishops would suffice to provoke a public uprising. Given divisions among the clergy, that prospect looks unlikely. Perhaps it falls to the Vatican to play the decisive card. A papal visit for 2008 has not been ruled out. Yet were a refusal made public, this message might send a message to Filipinos to come onto the streets like their parents in 1986 and dispose of a regime that has remained in power via similar means to Marcos.

Dr Vincent McKee is Visiting Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Santo Tomas, Manila and a specialist writer on Philippines affairs